The One About How to Respond to the Question “Are You A Quaker?”

welcome-friends_smAs Head of Sandy Spring Friends School, I am, from time-to-time, in conversations where someone might use the expression “non-Quaker” to describe those of us who are not members of the Religious Society of Friends. Recently, I have decided to banish the “N-Q” phrase from my vocabulary. Instead I simply say: “she is not a member of the Religious Society of Friends”–no shorthand for me.  I do this because I do not believe those who teach at Sandy Spring Friends School, hold it in trust, attend or send their children here, or, in a myriad of other ways, support and love the School should be referred to in a manner that suggests that they lack something necessary for full community membership.

The notion of who is a Quaker has evolved over time. Our Society began in the mid 17th Century; non-hierarchical, it stood in opposition to prevailing religious conventions. Being a Quaker was a risky proposition in Cromwell’s England. At a minimum, it meant social ridicule and, often, the prospect of jail time or worse. Attending Meeting for Worship was a dangerous act that could land you in deep water.

Despite the risks, early Quakers had no interest in forming a secret society or hiding their identity. It might be said that a Quaker was pretty much anyone who claimed to be one. The first several generations of Quakers were not, in a formal sense, “members.” The concept of formal membership evolved over the next 100 years.

It was only in the next century, as Quaker outreach mellowed and gave way to “quietism” that self-identification as a Quaker became more socially acceptable. As the prospect of prison, let alone the gallows, receded and certain behavior ceased (i.e. Quakers interrupting church services to openly criticize the clergy), a more formal sense of membership emerged, accompanied by adoption of certain community norms (a double-edged sword).

One reason for the establishment of formal membership criteria was very practical. Quakers, from the beginning, had taken care of each other. There was no shortage of opportunities to provide food to those in prison while calling for their release. Future generations continued to live their faith by supporting one another in old age and in sickness. But what of the people who claimed to be Quakers only to avail themselves of this “social safety net,” or those who moved to a different (wealthier) Monthly Meetings only when their needs were most acute? What practical way could Quakers sort out who to help and who, specifically, would be responsible for providing such help at a time of increasing mobility, growing social acceptance and a burgeoning  constituency? Difficult questions.

Thus, a formal recognition of membership in the Religious Society of Friends developed, in part, as a grassroots response on the part of Quakers through their Monthly Meetings to ensure fairness in the allocation of scarce resources. The result: the keeping of precise records (amateur historians rejoice!); consistent communications among Monthly Meetings; and the concept of membership associated with a church–which refers to the people, not the buildings (which are Meeting Houses)– that could vouch for you.

My point is that the concept of Quaker “membership” has evolved over time and, no doubt, will continue to evolve in response to various concerns both practical and divine. Way Opens.

Today, membership in the Religious Society of Friends in the United States is experiencing a slow decline. Yet our Quaker voices are heard through our schools and colleges, retirement communities, camps, service work, and Meetings. I know because every day I am in awe of the Sandy Spring Friends School faculty and other community members: their commitment to seeing that of God within each child, their openness to continuing revelation, and their capacity for love. Are these people unqualified to speak to the values and faith commitments of Friends? Of course not. Our faculty and trustees, alumni, parent volunteers, students, and so many others represent the very best of our Society. I hear the soft, still voice of God speaking through members and non-members alike. Some whose journeys bring them here will find their way into our Meeting Houses. Among those, some will persevere to be thought of as attenders and, some, eventually, will seek membership. In my mind, this is good, but, in the grand scheme of things, regardless of their membership status, I know they bring Light to their churches and synagogues, families, neighbors, workplaces, and community service destinations.

I welcome others to join me and drop “N-Q” from our vocabularies.  More importantly, let’s lower other barriers to entry so that we may include all of those who recognize their own Quakerness, some as a result of time spent in our Friends school communities, so that they may know, with confidence and authenticity, that they are valued members of our Society.  “Are you a Quaker?”  “I am trying my best every day.”

2 comments to The One About How to Respond to the Question “Are You A Quaker?”

  • Linda Dallas Reider

    How fortunate are we as a community to have had Ken and Tom as our heads of school during these past years? While I am no longer a part of the day-to-day life of the school, I look forward to reading the always thoughtful and thought provoking essays that Tom writes. How wonderful that technology — and the people who put the e-newsletter together each week — allows “graduated parents” and others to remain involved.

  • Ken Smith

    Thanks for this,Tom. Although I have been gone 5 1/2 years, I am still trying my best every day.

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